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New Queers in Blackpool

I have been working with Marlborough Productions for the last couple of years. In February 2020 we hosted a ‘weekender’ as the final presentation of work on the first phase of their touring programme, ‘New Queers on the Block’.

Here’s the article I wrote about my experiences of collaborating with them and beginning the development, creation and programming of Queer Art in Blackpool.

Blackpool is one of the UK’s most visited seaside resorts with a vast and rich history in entertainment including circus, variety, cabaret, magic and ballroom dance. For over 100 years, Blackpool has been synonymous with some of the biggest names in entertainment, and was known in its heyday as the Showbiz Capital of the North.

The resort has a strong LGBTQ+ community formed of people born and bred here (Sandgrown’uns), those attracted by its bright lights who have moved here, and an ever-changing transient community of seasonal workers. Over the years the town has had a significant number of LGBTQ+ venues and is home to the world famous Funny Girls, an internationally renowned Drag Cabaret set in an iconic former Art Deco cinema with a show that is now running in its 26th year.

However, away from the year round programme at Funny Girls, the traditional types of entertainment you would expect to find in ‘scene’ bars and clubs, and some growing relationships nurtured by independent spaces like Abingdon Studios (who host and develop new work for LGBTQ+ artists), there is little to no alternative programming of LGBTQIA performance or visual arts like you would expect to find in major cities throughout the UK.

Recognising that there was a distinct lack of opportunity to see, create or present this type of focused artistic work in our very much loved town, my friends and I – a collective of LGBTQ+ artists, curators and producers in our own right – set out on a mission to find ways to bring alternative work in to the resort.

Supported by Arts Council England through Creative People & Places, LeftCoast and Art B&B, the New Queers on the Block programme allowed us to test and present an existing programme of high quality queer live and visual art in the resort, and to begin to build and unlock a new audience for it.

The process was of course bumpy. Work of this nature is rarely programmed in Blackpool. It doesn’t have a natural home, there are few venues that lend itself to the work and as a result, less people are experimenting with creating it or directly participating in it. Audiences don’t necessarily understand what it is when they read about it, making them harder to reach than in cities. Promoting ‘queer’ art in itself has been a challenge, with major barriers still presented to us around the use of the word, combined with a lack of understanding in its reclamation and newfound empowerment.

All of these factors combine and present challenges in bringing audiences to engage in the work in the first place. But with all of this said, we have always found an audience. That audience may be small, but it’s strong and they are engaged and vocal about wanting to come back for more. There is absolutely a want and desire for LGTBQ+ art here in Blackpool, we just need better access to the resources and infrastructure that will help us to make it a more regular occurrence, keep the momentum in programming, build our audiences and begin to develop our own work and artists locally.

From a personal perspective, the team at Marlborough Productions have all been incredibly
supportive. David and Xav have taken the time to build a real interest and understanding of the resort and the LGBTQ+ artistic community who live and work here. They visit and check in regularly and continually look for ways to support and develop our ambitions.

Working together with David and Xav to present New Queers on the Block has helped me to better understand that we still have work to do in Blackpool. Retrospective now in my approach, I feel that we should, as Julie Andrews once famously sang, ‘ start at the very beginning’ – and let’s work to change the narrative around what ‘queer’ and ‘queerness’ means beyond the metropolitan scenes of the cities.

It might be early days in Blackpool for the development of a Queer Culture scene, but our town has a longstanding, simple and bold motto – ‘progress’. The taste for it is real and so is the desire to make it happen and we look forward to collaborating with Marlborough Productions here again in the future.

Marlborough Productions’ David Sheppeard said, “Mykey encapsulates Blackpool for me in lots of ways; big smile, make-it-work attitude and a hankering for some showbiz glam! As a local ambassador Mykey, along with Garth (Abingdon Studios), Kay and Duncan were invaulable in helping us navigate this iconic seaside town, which has a gay scene with a long history and lots of internal politics to navigate – not too disimilar to Brighton to be honest! The opening of the Art B&B (a Leftcoast supported project), the venue for our final weekender, marks a new chapter for queer creatives in Blackpool with them boldy taking up space across the town (see Garth Gratrix’s Shy Girl exhibtion at the Grundy Gallery) and we are pleased to have offered some support and encouragement in making things happen.”

You can find out more about New Queers on the Block and Marlborough productions here

And you can visit my article on their website here